Seminar guests decry state of genocide reporting
By MIKE ISAACS firstname.lastname@example.org
Less than 24 hours after Sunday's grand opening, the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Skokie was living up to its name.
If there was any doubt about how seriously this institution takes its mission of educating the public about genocide beyond the Holocaust, its first symposium Monday, "The Ethics of Dealing With Genocide," laid that to rest.
Museum Executive Director Richard Hirschhaut said the mission of the new institution is to never forget lessons of the Holocaust and to make sure no genocide goes unopposed again.
"We must care about crimes against humanity and the people affected by these atrocities by declaring that it is in our national interest to confront these crises," he said.
In an enlightening examination of media coverage of genocide moderated by broadcast journalist Bill Kurtis, panelists noted with disturbing frankness the challenges of reporting genocide so the public knows and cares about atrocities occurring in other parts of the world.
Some of those challenges exist because of the declining state of journalism, they said. Foreign bureaus are shrinking away and there is less ability to bring crucial information to the public. In fact, Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Paul Salopek said he now covers more than 40 countries.
"It's absurd. It's shameful," he said.
In 1948, an international convention to try to prevent and punish perpetrators of genocide provided a legal definition of this horrific word: "Intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."
But Salopek said that it's extraordinarily difficult in a hostile environment to get credible enough information to determine when killing becomes genocide. Each side wants to tell its side of the story to the exclusion of the others, he said.
"The only way field reporters can do it is by talking to everybody to the degree that it's safe for the reporter," he said. "And that takes time."
Salopek also noted that some genocide receive more coverage than others. While atrocities in Darfur have been well represented in the media of late, he said, there has been little coverage of genocide in the Congo where more than 5 million people have died, the most of any conflict since World War II.
McClatchy Newspapers Foreign Editor Roy Gutman said genocide develops in some way and may not even have been intended from the beginning as genocide. "You don't recognize it until all the signs are there and it can take months.," he said.
Gutman said that genocides often begin in much smaller ways. One of the first signs is evidence of war crimes -- the mistreatment and expulsion of civilians, he said.
"We journalists don't always pay as much attention as we should to this out flux of refugees," he said. "Those are the people we should be talking to immediately."
Kelly McBride, ethics group leader of The Poynter Institute, said that journalism is not healthy right now. As a media ethicist, she has received only two calls about when to use genocide to describe a conflict.
"I'm much more likely to get the call about whether we should use the photo of Rihanna in the domestic violence incident," she said. "The systems within newsrooms to actually ask the questions have to exist."
Zanku Armenian, the national chairman of the Communications Council of the Armenian National Committee, also recognizes the difficulty in bringing about awareness of genocide.
"If it's hard to get the media to cover genocides that are more current, imagine the challenge that we've had in the Armenian-American community to get people to look at something that was 94 years ago," he said about Turkey's genocide against Armenia and the former country's denial.
Wall Street Journal United Nations Correspondent Joe Lauria said he believes readers still want to know about atrocities in other parts of the world.
"It's a very dramatic story, genocide," he said. "I think you can sell newspapers if it's done correctly." McBride, however, disagreed, saying that Americans tend to be isolationists and even self-centered.
Monday's second panel, moderated by Northwestern University Director of the Center for International Human Rights Director David Scheffer, examined atrocity crimes on trial.
Panelists included Cabinet Deputy Chief Grant Dawson of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Save Darfur Coalition President Jerry Fowler, Open Society Institute Fellow Rebecca Hamilton and Justice Hassan B. Jallow, prosecutor for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
In the symposium's keynote speech, Stuart Eizenstat, who has served in three U.S. administrations and held key positions under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, said that only gradually did the Holocaust assert itself on his consciousness and on that of the world.
But Eizenstat played a key role in bringing the U.S. Holocaust Museum to Washington D.C. under President Clinton. At the time, he said, it was controversial because some said it shouldn't be on the National Mall since the Holocaust did not occur in the United States.
Today, Eizenstat noted, the museum is the third most visited attraction in Washington. "It's been a success beyond our wildest imagination." Two-thirds who visit the museum are non-Jewish.
"I know that's what will happen here," he said, citing estimates that 250,000 students will visit the new facility in Skokie in just its first year.